One man, playing both Jesus and the Devil? Rodrigo Garcia’s new film Last Days in the Desert at Sundance sounds like it could be a broad comedy. Instead, it’s a light-on-dialogue character portrait of very human Biblical figures, both portrayed in subtle tones by Ewan McGregor.
Garcia (Albert Nobbs and HBO’s In Treatment) zooms in on Yeshua (as he’s called here) wandering the desert, meditating for 40 days and 40 nights on the nature of his divine mission. He’s looking for a sign — a voice from the sky, a burning bush, anything — from his father. Instead, he receives only suggestions of the Almighty’s fallibility and vanity from his evil companion. McGregor, playing both roles thanks to camera tricks and the work of his longtime stand-in Nash Edgerton, is differentiated only by the Devil’s smug smile and jewelry.
The production shot for five weeks in Southern California’s Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, with Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, Birdman) capturing the vast landscape and intimate conversations. McGregor spoke with Yahoo Movies about the film after it screened on Monday.
Was it disorienting to go back and forth between the two characters?
No, not really, because I had my friend Nash [Edgerton] working with me on those scenes. I would just play to him, and I was getting something back; I wasn’t doing it to a piece of tape on a stand, and I wasn’t reading with a stand-in who’s not a very good actor.
I think the demon was harder to get right. The takes that Rodrigo’s chosen managed to make it more subtle. Because there were some takes that were a bit over-the-top or angrier or vicious. I guess what’s more interesting is seeing these two men who look exactly the same.
The Devil almost seems like the other side of Jesus’ psyche more than an actual physical character.
I think the film is open to anybody’s interpretation, and I like that. But I played them as he’s the Devil and he’s Jesus. A lot of what the Devil is saying to Jesus is trying to create doubt and f—- with him, really. But that being said, I was never trying to suggest that this was just another sort of Jesus’s doubt. I always imagined that they really were two different people.
So often in our culture, we’re shown Jesus as a calming and certain figure. But your portrayal is of him as a man, not a deity. How do you think religious people will react to that?
I can’t imagine any issue with it, because there’s never a moment that he’s uncertain of his faith. I played him as the son of God and a man who is in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights to meditate on his path, the path ahead of him, which is to go out and preach and dedicate his life, ultimately and completely, to spreading the word of God, his father.
He’s not in the desert being uncertain of, “Am I the son of God?” He’s just wanting some clarity, some connection with his father, who has set this task for him. And he’s not hearing him, he’s not able to communicate with him. And that became a very human thing.
You shot in the desert, far out from civilization. How did all that time out there impact the character?
There was no cell phone signal out there, so it was just fantastic. It was just space and time, which is what we’re getting further and further away from in our modern life.
You think of a lot of things you don’t normally have time to think about. You think of things you thought were buried and away and dealt with, and they bubble back up and you realize they weren’t dealt with. Things from your childhood, your relationships. There was a quiet introspection about the character that was easy to achieve since I could do that myself.
I’d call it a spoiler, but I think everyone knows what happens in Jesus’ story. What was the day of the crucifixion shoot like?
I didn’t know if we were in the right place. There was a road that runs in a huge loop around the location. Every now and again, we had to stop because there was a car coming. As the day wore on, I was frustrated that I wasn’t quite having the experience that I wanted to have up there.
There was a guy down [below me] operating the hydraulics — a guy with his ass hanging out of his jeans — people screwing stuff and measuring, the usual filmmaking people. I found them to be a real distraction. At some point I just wanted to be there alone, I suppose. Eventually toward the last few shots of the sequence, they sensed it, I guess. I noticed that I couldn’t see anyone anymore and everyone backed out of my eye-line. There was real silence, and i was able to just drift off into the distance. I got some sense of what I was looking for.